I wrote this October 2009 on too much chocolate, but alot of people have been asking lately on how to get meetings, so i will post here.
I just made my first major trip to NYC, from Portland, OR, to show my portfolio around for a while. Alot of people were very curious to learn how the whole operation works, so I decided to write about the process on my flight back to the West coast last night.
Before beginning, I want to put out a cardinal rule:
A quality portfolio and website, full of tightly edited work that distinctly shows the way you shoot- your voice- is your gateway to getting meetings.
I really can’t stress this enough, and I say it as objectively as possible (I’m really truly not trying to be self-referential). If your work is thin, all over the place, poorly laid out, weak, confusing, or if spending even just two minutes on your site is generally puzzling, you’re not going to get meetings. In a very rare case, a PE might see some promise in some of your shots, and will be generous enough with their time to spend 5-10 minutes piecing your non-linear sequencing, layouts, and edits in order to understand it all. They might get back to you, but just don’t make them do that in the first place. (I am obviously not a PE myself, but have looked at enough websites for forum access to TMC and have talked to enough PE’s to get it).
One last note: most of what I write focuses around magazines and photo editors (PE’s), but approaching ad agencies and Art Buyers/Directors is really the same, so a lot of what I describe for magazines is interchangeable with agencies. Additionally, alot of this information is totally applicable for promos and mailers as well.
1.) Preparation. Setup/Research/Approach:
You will start getting the ball rolling by sending out emails to the PE’s you want to meet with, at the magazines you want to shoot for. This is very, very important: your approach to arranging meetings should not be based on spraying a generic email all over town, announcing that you’re going to be around and that you’d like to meet. The more untailored and spammy your emails are, the more ineffective and useless they become. Think of it this way: you’re not dredging the ocean floor, seeing what you can pick up along the way (and damaging/killing other creatures along the way). You need to be setting out certain lines to catch specific fish.
You’ve got to know whom you want to meet with, and the more research you do beforehand, the more focused and efficient the whole process becomes. You wouldn’t arrange or walk into an interview without knowing about the company, so take the same approach with magazines or ad agencies.
In the case of magazines, spend some quality time at a bookstore- hours and hours- looking at titles from all different sections of the racks. Heartily flip through them. Notice how the sections work, who is shooting, what the stories focus on, how they do layout, what kind of work the magazine seems to gravitate towards. Take notes. Are the photos in the magazine full of energy, are they quiet, are they dynamic, are they lo-fi, do they all seem to be blasted to hell with strobes? Try to line the magazine content up with your work, make sure it’s on par.
From here, figure out- based on your current/existing portfolio- if you could see this magazine hiring you for assignments. Don’t be dreamy, don’t make stretches, be real about it. If you’re shooting X and the magazine doesn’t really run anything other than Y, it might be a waste of both your time and theirs to approach them. That said, never pigeonhole a magazine for having a visual style set in concrete: this is why looking at the entire magazine is important. There are many titles out there that have a distinctively different front-of-book, compared to the feature sections in the back. I’ll get back to this later. Finally, don’t dismiss magazines or skip over certain sections, unless you clearly are not shooting food, architecture, etc. But for example, if you never thought you’d shoot for O magazine, check it out, because might be running stories you could be shooting.
Your approach to ad agencies is very similar, except it involved looking online at each agency’s site, checking out their campaigns, their clients, their layout. Ad agencies are a lot trickier to attribute work to, because companies switch agencies, use multiple agencies for various aspects of marketing, and art buyers tend to work on specific campaigns- you don’t know which. But still, you can do your homework.
2.) Getting contact info:
So you’ve done your research on the magazines. You know the titles you want to meet with (or send email/print promos to, for the time being).
One big factor remains: you need contact info for these people. Both email addresses and phone numbers. You can get this a number of ways. If you’ve got hella money, you can buy into a big ol’ list of contacts, like Agency Access. It only costs $1,000+ dollars. Which, for most struggling photographers, is a lot of money to pay for some contact information. If you’ve got the dough, go for it. It’s the easiest and quickest route to get this info.
If you aren’t loaded enough to drop that kind of money for this service, you’ve still got options.
- Option #1: You’ve got a pen and paper. As you’re researching magazines, look at the masthead of each title. Write down each name/title in the photo department, the address of the magazine, and the title’s general telephone number. Go home with this list, call each title, ask to speak to the photo dept, and when someone picks up the phone on the 8th try (seriously no joke), ask about their process of having photographers in for meetings. Get that person’s email address. Send them your site. Work your way in from there. This process is incredibly time intensive and it will feel like you’re crawling up a steep mountain at times, but it can pay off.
- Option #2: Have you been doing a good job assisting for certain photographers? Do they ‘owe you one’ for that job they needed you for, in a pinch, when the budget was super small? Or are they just good people? Ask for a handful of magazine contacts from them. Realize the smaller the market you live in, the less likely this is to happen. It helps if you shoot radically different than this photographer.
- Option #3: Bro/Sis down with some hungry photographers friends of yours, either locally or on the internets, and share all the resources you have. I recommend doing this anyway, all the time. Expand your network. It feels good and it’s immensely helpful and supportive.
Regardless of how you get your contact info, organize it in some way that makes sense to you, like on an Excel spreadsheet (I’m not saying excel makes sense). You’re ready to start writing your first round of emails. Yes, the first round of many.
3.) The first round of emails:
You’re ready to really wow these PE’s! You’re gonna show them tons of pizzazz, you’re gonna tell them how awesome your newest project is, you’re gonna tell them what kind of cameras you shoot with, you’re gonna share your artist statement with them!
Your email will likely be the 30th, 50th, or 90th that photo editor receives that day falling under the category of ‘promo’. These PE’s are busy people. They are probably working with fewer staff in the photo department than they were last year because there’s no ad money coming in. So they’re likely doing more work for the same amount of money, similar to the rest of the photo industry.
The photo editors you are sending your emails to might have anywhere between negative 5 seconds to 20 seconds to fully read it. You need to be concise, to the point, efficient, friendly, non-rambling, and quick to share the purpose of the email. There can’t be much in the way of extraneous wordage. In the case of the “I’d like to set up a meeting” email, I’ve found it best to say where you’re located, 10-15 words about your work (especially if you have a new project) that is hyperlinked to your site in the body of the email, the dates you’re going to be in town, and a small promo image. It better be fast loading, so make it 300-500px wide, compressed for web. Have 9 or 10 compressed promo/teaser images on hand, and tailor the best one to whoever you’re writing to.
Finally, show you care, show that you’ve been checking out their magazine, understand their assignments, and know their look. Make it clear you’re not just throwing out the net and seeing what gets caught. Be quick and specific. Going off the Oprah magazine reference earlier, write that you really enjoyed the Katherine Wolkoff photos that ran last issue, or that you think your work would fit well in W magazine’s front of book section. The more you show you care- and you really should care anyway- the more response you will get from PEs.
My personal response rate from these types of ‘cold emails’ (where I’ve never contacted the person before) was 30-40%; high by most standards, especially high by blast email standards. It’s totally worth the effort; every response led to a meeting, which is arguably the best way to start a really good relationship with a photo editor.
4.) The follow-up
For those who haven’t done much of this kind of email writing/campaigning before (and I’m not calling myself a veteran by any means), even a 20-30% response rate seems very low. You’re putting in all this effort, writing these individual letters, and you don’t hear back from 7 or 8 out of every 10 people you’re emailing. It might feel like a lot of time lost, but don’t get discouraged. Most importantly, you absolutely cannot take it personally. Even if you get few responses from your first round of emailing, this of it as a foundation point for each and every one of the PE’s you’re trying to reach.
As I wrote before, PE’s are busier than ever, but the majority of them are, in fact, looking at these emails sent to them. The might not click through to a site, and if the email and promo image are abominable, it’ll get deleted real quick. But there’s a great chance, especially if you wrote a good note to them and had a well-fitting image, that they will remember you and your work, albeit for the short term.
The 2 days after you send a PE an email are crucial, because you’re likely top-of-mind still, so if you follow up within this time frame, there’s a good chance your name might still register. Furthermore, going along with the theme of uber-busy photo editors, I have followed up with several who literally told me, “oh yeah, I really liked your work alot, I checked out your site”. This is the reality- everything could be set up perfectly: you write a great email, the PE checks out the work and likes it, and all of a sudden your great email is buried and there’s a crazy deadline for them tomorrow. It’s up to you to slip in there while the iron is still hot make setting up a meeting a breeze for these folks. In many ways, the followup is just as crucial as the original email.
What’s the best way to follow up? Two options. Send another email. Or make a phone call. Or send a fruit basket. Breaking it down:
Email: Safer/less ‘scary’ for many photogs, more comfortable, some PE’s prefer it to the phone, the PE might be out of the office but checking email. Con: The exact same thing you’re trying to combat- a lack of response from your original email- is likely to happen again.
Phone: Riskier than an email, for one. If you’re not good on the phone, if you get real awkward and tend to blurt out stupid things you wish you didn’t say, or stutter, or space out while on the phone, I don’t recommend calling up a Director of Photography of any major magazine. It’ll probably leave a bad impression. Some PE’s abhor getting cold calls, and you can catch them at absolutely the wrong time, which is no good. Also, expect the people you’re calling to pick up only 25-35% of the time.
The plus side of the phone: to be totally honest, it’s a super efficient, almost ruthlessly efficient, way to get done what you need to get done. It’s undivided real-time attention; the person you’re talking to can’t store you to be read later and forget about it. It’s great. But respect this on-the-phone time, and be as concise on the phone as you would be in emails.
If you call a PE, understand their time is precious, and be ready to fire on all cylinders. If you’re trying to set up a meeting, have your calendar up and ready to go. Know what you’re going to say. Spend no more than 10 initial seconds saying who you are, and why you’re calling. If you sent an email two days before (give em a day to get back to you in the first place), throw in a quick reference. For example, I say “I’m the Portland photographer who emailed you two days ago”.
If they don’t seem incredibly anxious to get you off the phone, ask if they’d like to set up a meeting time right then and there. If they do seem incredibly anxious to get you off the phone, respect that and listen for it. Be gracious. Say you’ll email them your site again, right away. So that 3 minutes later, they can associate the email they just received with the kind photographer who totally understood they were busy and emailed instead.
5.) You’re halfway there!
Tens of hours later, after filling up several pieces of paper with magazine contact info, after organizing a spreadsheet, after spending many mornings emailing many PE’s, after spending several afternoons doing follow-ups, you have four meetings! Hopefully you get more than that; set your sights as high as they deserve to be, but know there is a 99% that you will get frustrated at some point, there is a 99% chance that you will take this sluggish process more personally than it truly is, and that there’s a 99% chance that you will question why the hell you got yourself into a career of photography in the first place. But remember that it’s a long and slow ascent, and that you’re putting time into yourself, for a medium and profession you ultimately love. Try not to lose sight of that.